Cecilia Hayden-Smith—a retired cook, caterer, and addiction-counselor—has met people from all walks of life since moving to the District in 1962, when she arrived from a small town in Maryland. Now 72, she shares a house with other women.
Hayden-Smith came out as a lesbian in her thirties. “I was a late-bloomer because I was so busy trying to fit in,” she says, laughing. She had reason to come out as an adult: The two queer people she knew growing up “were treated horribly,” bullied and called names. Happily, Hayden-Smith has been with her “mate,” a nurse, for three decades.
But as she advances into her golden years, and as the cost of living in D.C. becomes more prohibitive, she hopes to see a home for LGBTQ seniors built here. “I’ve done a lot to take care of myself,” Hayden-Smith says. “I don’t want to spend my last years in a place I know is going to treat me terrible just because I’m a lesbian.” She abhors the notion of going “back into the closet,” which is an unfortunate reality for many queer people living in retirement homes.
“The [personal] home becomes the last safe space, the proverbial closet,” says Bob Linscott, assistant director at the Boston-based LGBT Aging Project. “Their heterosexual peers have grown up and marinated in this belief that homosexuality is immoral.”
Otherwise jovial, Hayden-Smith turns somber when recounting the fate of a friend—a gay man—who suffered from acute diabetes. After doctors amputated his legs, he moved into an assisted living facility. There, Hayden-Smith says, a male orderly repeatedly raped him after discovering he was gay. The man was afraid to tell anyone but close friends. About a decade ago, he killed himself.
“I tell that story not to put people in shock, but to let people know how dire this situation is for us,” Hayden-Smith explains. “There are a lot of people who still don’t think we’re human beings, and they think this is a choice.” Although the national climate around queer rights has improved over the years, she says discrimination persists.
The data show she’s right, particularly within housing. A 2014 study by the Equal Rights Center found that almost half of same-sex couples faced “adverse treatment” when searching for senior housing. There are between 1.5 and 3 million LGBTQ people over 65 estimated in the U.S. Beyond prejudice, this population experiences higher rates of poverty, poorer physical and mental health, and more-common feelings of isolation than their straight peers, researchers say.
Enter Dr. Imani Woody, who Hayden-Smith has known for almost 25 years. In 2012, Woody, a lesbian, founded Mary’s House for Older Adults, a nonprofit organization that seeks to establish a continuum of care for LGBTQ seniors. Woody and the board of Mary’s House have grand ambitions: to create facilities accommodating various levels of medical need, from independent living to hospice care, first across the District’s eight wards and then in every state. Each would provide services and culturally competent staff.
The vision for the organization came from Woody’s parents. Mary was her mother’s first name. Her father had a stroke several years ago and moved into a rehab facility, but her family was ultimately unsatisfied with the care. Woody says he became incontinent while living there, so her family then took him out.
“I was wondering what would happen if he had been a gay man, or a trans person, or a lesbian, because I’ve been working in these issues for a long time,” Woody, a diversity consultant, says, noting that ageism and personnel shortages impact care at senior centers.
After her father died, Woody inherited her childhood home, a single-family house in Fort Dupont. Apartment complexes and parking lots surround the property.
Woody was figuring out what to do with the house when she heard about an elderly gay man who’d been living in an upscale retirement home when he died. His body was found five days later because the man had become socially isolated. “That was appalling to me,” says Woody.
With a Ph.D. in human services, she thought reconfiguring the property into a residence for seniors would be simple. But zoning restrictions and fundraising work slowed down the process.
Politically, there were no issues. Then-Ward 4 Councilmember Muriel Bowser and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton attended a Sept. 2014 event held in the home’s backyard to celebrate the second anniversary of Mary’s House. Bowser said she was “very proud” of the group’s work. Yet the District trails other cities that already have queer-specific senior homes—Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Minneapolis among them.
Kelly Kent, director of the National Housing Initiative at SAGE—a New-York based organization devoted to queer seniors—says only about ten LGBTQ senior-housing projects are operating in the U.S. Another 20 or so, including the inaugural project by Mary’s House, are in the predevelopment stage and actively looking for funding.
“The need is just growing so tremendously, with Baby Boomers coming into retirement,” Kent explains. “Ideally, whether it be D.C. or Omaha, Nebraska, what we would love to see in every community is a continuum of housing options.” Some may still be able to live independently, whereas others will need frequent attention. But the overall priority should be “creating an environment that’s welcoming,” says Kelly.
In late February, Mary’s House submitted plans for a 15-unit residence to the city’s Board of Zoning Adjustment, which must grant special exceptions from zoning rules for the development to proceed. Builders would have to raze the house where Woody grew up and where her father sat on the porch and greeted neighbors. “There’ll still be a porch,” she quips. “It’s a testament to my parents, who were good people.” A hearing on the proposal has been scheduled for April 26.
The facility would feature private bathrooms plus shared amenities: a living room, kitchen, dining room, library, green roof, and an exercise area, which would have space for yoga and a hydrotherapy pool. The idea is to balance privacy with communal activities. “This will be their home,” Woody says. “[It’ll have] like a Golden Girls model, for lack of a better term.”
She also intends to include a yellow brick road to the home’s door—because queer people would ask, sub rosa, if someone was a “friend of Dorothy” back in the day—and a stone wall out front to honor the seminal 1969 Stonewall riots in New York.
Preliminarily, one-third of the units would be market-rate, the remaining two-thirds for moderate- and low-income residents. Why not charge full market? “D.C. has an affordable housing crisis. There’s need,” says Woody.
Other than zoning, the biggest challenge for Mary’s House is financing. The project is expected to cost roughly $2 million to develop. If all goes smoothly, the earliest it would open is late 2018.
“We get a call or letter or email at least once a month saying, ‘Have you built it?’” Woody notes.
Hayden-Smith, a “late-bloomer to religion” as well, is saying her prayers for Mary’s House. “It’s important for people who love each other for 30 years, or one year, or even one month, to have the right to be together, and die together, and live in peace.”